Was Saint Kosmas Aitolos a Racist? – An Interview with Professor Vasileios Kalliakmanis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

9 January 2016

On the occasion of the commemoration of Saint Kosmas Aitolos, we talk to Professor Vasileios Kalliakmanis, of the Theology School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki about the relationship between the saint and the Jews of his time. From time to time there is mention of the supposed racism of Saint Kosmas. But is there really a case to answer? What was the inter-racial context within which Patro-Kosmas functioned?

Pemptousia: Is it true that there was a certain competitiveness between Patro-Kosmas and the Jews in the areas where he preached?

Prof. Kalliakmanis: The basic pastoral problem facing the saint in the region of Ioannina and elsewhere was the opening of the market (bazaar) on Sundays. This was something that affected the Greeks economically, but, even more, was a blow to the Orthodox faith and the self-awareness of the faithful, with the result that the churches emptied, since everybody was engaged in the supply or sale of goods. If you also take into account the fact that Sunday was the day when we remember the Lord’s resurrection, was a day of rest for the Christians and that the only place where they could hear elevated Greek being spoken was the Church, especially the services on Sundays and great feasts, you can understand the concern and struggle of the great national apostle for a change in this custom. His discourse on the need for Sunday to be a day of rest and his emphasis on its festal nature, because of the resurrection, resonated profoundly and so the day for the bazaar was changed to Saturday. The damage to the Jews is obvious. This is probably why the Jews hated him and why they must have played a part in his murder.

P.: Was the any connection between his death and Jewish actions?

K.: There is some evidence. In the first place, we know that after one of his homilies, people crowded round to kiss his hand and take his blessing, while he, on the other hand, recommended that they pray for his protection from Jewish plots against his life. There’s also a letter of his to his brother, Chrysanthos, the Principal of a school on Naxos, in which he mentions that he’s noted the general hostility of the Jews towards his person. Finally his disciple, Zikos Bistrekis, who followed him right up until his last moments and wrote the account of his martyrdom, reports that the Jews were behind his assassination.

P.: What was his attitude towards them in general?

K.: He himself particularly loved the persons of Christ and the Mother of God and his heart was aflame with the Gospel teaching, which the Jews appear to have mocked. In his sermons, he seems to have been deeply upset by the dismissive attitude they held towards the sacred figures of the Christian faith. It should be noted here that there were lots of Christians who, despite hearing his sermons, retained the bad habit of blaspheming the name of Christ and Our Lady. In  these cases, we can see another dimension, that of indirect teaching: for Saint Kosmas, anyone could potentially be a Jew if they denied Christ and rejected the Gospel. That could even be the case among Christians themselves. Anybody who denied Christ automatically belonged to the ranks of the enemies of the faith. Another example of his method of teaching was, for example, when he used the example of Judas to demonstrate the importance of preparation for Holy Communion. Even though Judas received the Spotless Mysteries, his intentions were not, in fact, good, and so he was captured by the chief enemy of humankind.

P.: Do you see these views as part of the more general context of his day?

K.: Very likely. You see, for centuries, the term “Jew” was associated with a host of prejudices. The consciousness of European peoples was dominated by antipathy towards them and they were considered to be responsible for a great many calamities, from the murders of children, to epidemics and so on. The direct consequence was that they were persecuted, isolated in ghettos and subjected to other such measures. On the other hand, they were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire when they were expelled from European countries. And so they acquired professional and other privileges. The sources relate that they were exempt certain taxes and obligations, that their children were not forced to become janissaries and so on. So they were economically and socially more powerful and the Greeks were weaker. It has also been claimed that since they also acted as loan-sharks, they had brought a lot of people to the brink of despair.

P.: Did Patro-Kosmas show any sign of overcoming these stereotypes?

K.: But of course! For a start, Saint Kosmas was constantly calling for repentance and a return to the Gospel path. He stressed, in fact, that people hearing his sermons shouldn’t envy and behave with hostility towards the Jews, but should pity them. Besides, they should take care of their own spiritual state, so that, at the divine judgement they wouldn’t find themselves in a more agonizing position than the Jews. He expressed his deep pain for the salvation of “the whole world”, all the nations and all people. He himself said: “Why have I told you this, my Christian friends? Not to make you murder the Jews and persecute them, but to get you to cry for them, since they’ve left God… I told you so that we should repent now, while there’s still time, so that it doesn’t happen that we anger God and that He lets go of our hands, because then we would suffer as the Jews have and even worse”.

Let’s not forget, either, that Saint Kosmas steadfastly preached love, not bigotry. He also believed in and proclaimed the unity of humankind. He considered every person to be a child of God. Naturally, there are differences in faith. But under no circumstances can that become a cause for contempt or hatred towards other people. All people, he taught, have the same Father and a mother, so they’re all siblings.

There’s a really impressive dialogue that’s survived between the saint and a gypsy, and it still tells us a lot today. In this discussion, the saint urges the gypsy to tell him about himself, and he complains that, even though he, too, is descended from Adam and Eve, the other people round there looked down on him, even in church. The enlightened instructor grasped the opportunity, and once he had consoled the man, reminded him that, despite his provenance, as long as he kept the divine commandments he could win the prize of Paradise- unlike the saint himself, who might be “superior” in terms of race, but his bad behaviour would send him to perdition: “Listen, son, even though you’re a Romany, since you’re baptized in the name of the holy Trinity, and you keep God’s commandments, you’ll get to Paradise. Now me, I’m not a Romany, and  since I do evil, I’m going to Hell and I’ll burn forever”. So for Patro-Kosmas, any difference was due to the observance or otherwise of the divine will, not to any racial provenance.

And finally there’s another point that ought to be noted: even though he spoke out against Jews, his Christian conscience wouldn’t allow the unfair treatment of anyone, whatever their race. This is why he was particularly severe in his references to the hard-heartedness of his audiences. He taught that those who were unjust, bore within themselves a great curse: “So for this reason, my brothers and sisters, if you’ve been unfair to anyone, be they Christian, Turk, Jew or Westerner, make reparations, because it’s cursed and you’ll never get on otherwise”. We can see that the saint believed that social problems are caused by ill-will on the part of the members of society rather than on their background. This observation may be particularly useful in our own day, with our contemporary social problems.

P.: Thank you very much for telling us about these very interesting facets of the teaching of Saint Kosmas.

 K.: And thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about the great saint who was from my own part of Greece.